Schooling is not
always a pleasant experience for children and young people. School experiences
can be alienating for some and can lead to marginalisation, disengagement and
risk of dropping out of school completely. Almost one
in five young people are affected this way.
children such as these, alternative schooling can offer a second chance at
meaningful learning. Alternative schooling, according to the Australian Association for Flexible and Inclusive
Education, supports the learning of around 70,000 young people across
Australia each year.
In this post, I’ll tell you about some
young people’s perspectives at an alternative school and spaces that foster and
support belonging, acceptance, and the desire to learn.
Spaces in school where disenfranchised
children feel they can belong
There are three spaces I want to tell you
about. While they would not be exclusive to this particular school, or to
alternative schooling generally, I believe it is important to recognise them,
and to look at how they work from the perspective of the children experiencing
three spaces are:
Relational spaces, that focus
school relationships and interactions,
Material spaces, predominantly
focusing on the learning environment, and
Pedagogical spaces, that focus
on approaches to teaching.
These spaces that are
associated with belonging tend to incorporate schooling practices based on
choice, mutual respect and support.
support and encourage social (and at times emotional) interactions between
young people and their teachers and workers, and young people and their peers.
In particular, those interactions that are inclusive and acknowledge the
complexities of a young person’s life.
For example, one
student recollects her experiences:
I was in a relationship, and my boyfriend moved away. So, he stopped going to school, so I kind of lost it a bit there. That same year, my parents divorced and that was a bit confusing. And then my friends stopped talking to me, and then I started going down into the hole of depression. It’s really hard to get out of there. You try talking to someone … so you talk to your friends about it … [but] they were ignoring me and then I lost motivation to keep going to school. … I searched for a job. I couldn’t get a job. So, I actually just sat on the couch at my mum’s place and did nothing for six months. And that didn’t help anything at all.
She went on to say that her life was turned
around when she enrolled in a school, in this case an alternative school, where
she felt that she belonged.
For other students, their disengagement
resulted because of their classroom interactions. For example, this student
At my other school, I always seemed to do the wrong thing. I’d always get detentions and I started to get a bad reputation with the teachers. My first school that I went to, I ended up getting expelled, then I went to another school but I didn’t end up going. I just stayed home and made excuses. I just didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why I got into trouble a lot. I just got in trouble. At the start, I used to listen to the teachers, and then after a while, I don’t know, I didn’t really care anymore so I just stopped listening and gave up.
For some students, disengagement can
culminate in expulsion from schooling:
I’m not allowed back to any schools in Queensland because I’ve been kicked out and this is a second chance for me. I respect that they have given me this second chance. I’m quite grateful to be a student.
While suspension and expulsion rates vary
across Australian states and territories, research suggests these are increasing.
Relational spaces are often characterised
by inclusion and acceptance, as suggested by these students:
To be a student at this
school means being accepted by a group of people that actually like you and don’t
When I come to school each day, I feel accepted. I feel absolutely no stress to come here. It is so free-flowing and easy to do the [school] work.
Young people often cited their
relationships with teachers and other school workers as being central to their
feelings of belonging and acceptance.
The teaching is just really nurturing. They pay attention to you. They get deep into what is really troubling you, and they help you out. It’s really cool.
Practices within relational spaces promote
caring, tolerance and understanding:
It is a lot easier to understand everyone. We normally sit down and have group discussions. If something is not right, we try to help each other.
As with all social units, there are
parameters that regulate spaces and the behaviours within these spaces which
students indicated developed a sense of commitment to the group:
To have a sense of belonging, equality, and that someone is just there to care about you. It’s pretty chill, like casual, but still strict in the areas it needs to be. Yeah, it has good guidelines like family does.
The social and emotional supports offered
within relational spaces enable productive learning and relationships.
When school learning
spaces are configured in ‘non-traditional’ ways, the possibilities are endless
and can potentially shift the composition and function of school spaces. Some
alternative schools describe their learning spaces as ‘studios’ rather than
classrooms. This is more than an exercise in nomenclature. The studios are not
filled with front-facing desks lined up in rows, nor other traditional layouts.
Instead, they are spacious multi-purpose environments with kitchens and lounges
and other comfortable furniture that could be found in a home. These material
spaces often prompted students to refer to their studios as being ‘not like
Our learning space is like my home environment. We’ve got couches, we’ve got TV, we’ve got computers surrounding us, we’ve got a kitchen that we go cook food, so I like that – no desks or a whiteboard and chalkboard.
When I visited this school, it was clear
that the kitchen was the hub of the school. This alternative school, like many
others by virtue of their smaller population, embraced the opportunities
associated with the practice of preparing and eating meals. This student
We have the convenience of lounges in our classroom instead of hard chairs and desks. When we have breakfast and lunch, we sit around the table to make it a kind of family feel because some of us don’t sit at the table with our family at home for dinner.
While families vary in composition, and not
all experiences of family are positive for all students, the young people at
this alternative school would often refer to the material learning spaces as
creating a sense of belonging akin to a ‘family’.
school often disrupted traditional pedagogic practices for those that better
suited the young people, rather than the systems that devise them.
Additionally, the school individualised the learning of each of its students
through a ‘project-based learning’ approach. Students acknowledged this
approach as a means of enabling choice.
We get a lot of choices at my school, which I love. … You get all of your maths and English through the semester, but you don’t have to sit in the class. It’s good because you don’t just go from class to class. It’s more up to the students. You have to push yourself to do it every day. It’s a great motivational skill.
Ensuring that work is connected to young
people’s lives and is meaningful to them, draws on integrated approaches to
curriculum delivery and facilitates student input into decision making.
Teachers were considered to be a key part of this learning process:
The style of teaching is more interactive, and it just gets you involved more. It actually makes you want to learn.
The pedagogic spaces also motivated
students because they enabled the students to work at their own pace, make
decisions about their learning, and gain support from staff when required:
When I got to this school, I settled down and started putting effort into schoolwork. It made me feel good. I don’t need to stress anymore with work and stuff like that; I can just do it at my own pace and how I like it. I enjoy having a team leader and advisor as part of my studio because they help me with what I need help. I can ask them anything I want, if it’s personal or to do with work, and they’ll help me with that.
For some students at this school, their
newfound ‘success’ improved their lives and relationships beyond the school:
Previously, I didn’t really do well at school. I just sat around. Done nothing. But here, I’ve passed subjects and got ‘B’s and ‘A’s. That’s motivated me to do better and see how far I can push myself. It feels amazing. My mum is proud of me. I haven’t seen that look of pride on her face for a while and I was kind of ashamed of being a ‘drop-kick’ because I got kicked out of school and didn’t get good grades and now I’m getting ‘B’s. I’m happy with that.
These spaces can
work in any school
When listening to
the voices of the young people at this alternative school, they shared
experiences of increased satisfaction with their schooling, re-engagement with
learning, and a desire to plan and work towards future careers goals; as well
as feelings of safety, acceptance and belonging.
separately, these spaces intertwine and intersect to form the school space,
enabling young people to be active participants in their learning. These
relational, material and pedagogic spaces support belonging and operate to
include disengaged and marginalised young people in their education and
described in this blog are not unique to this alternative school, or to
alternative schooling in particular. They are spaces that can, and do, operate in
any school or learning community.
This research on
relational, material, and pedagogic practices could be useful to educators,
school leaders and policy makers interested in how spaces where children and
young people feel they belong and are valued member of their school community,
can work. The principles described here can be effective within all modes of
schooling and school communities.
Aspa Baroutsis is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Griffith Institute of Education Research, Griffith University. Her background is in secondary school teaching. She completed her doctorate at The University of Queensland. Currently, Aspa holds an elected position on the executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her research interests include the mediatisation of teachers and teaching; teachers’ work and identity; learning spaces, student engagement and agentic voice. Twitter: @aspa25
Aspa Baroutsis is presenting with Annette Woods on Geographies of learning to write: Mapping literacy learning through draw and talk at the AARE 2019 Conference.
Hundreds of educational researchers are
reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full
We are deeply concerned about advice the Australian Government has been given on teacher education. We believe it is seriously flawed. The advice has led, and is leading, to major reforms to teacher education throughout Australia.
Teacher educators and educational researchers like ourselves would like the public to know what is happening. Significantly we want to point out what we think is wrong with current directions and what needs to be done to ensure that we have high quality teacher education processes in place in Australia. .
Changes to teacher education will have repercussions in every classroom in Australia and ultimately to the kinds of society in which we live, so it is important to get them right.
Our misgivings arise from a report by the Australian Commonwealth government appointed Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group (TEMAG) called Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers. The report was commissioned by the Australian Government to recommend reforms to teacher education in Australia.
We are concerned about the advice given in this report and the government’s response to the report. We are also concerned about the follow-up work being done by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) that will lead to the changes.
These are not minor criticisms. It is the failure to include in planning for future Australian teacher education what teacher educators see as a basic building block, needed by teachers to be successful professionals in their classrooms and schools. And it is a failure by the government body charged with improving Australian teacher education and teacher quality, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, to listen to people who are leaders in those fields.
We have written in detail about our concerns. We want to put some of those thoughts in this blog.
Our three major concerns
An obsession with standardisation
The main message of the report, with the urgent sounding title ‘Action Now!’, is that teacher education needs to produce “classroom ready” teachers. We are worried this particular “classroom ready” message will lead to a very narrow view of what constitutes the ‘ideal teacher’. This is not to say that we are opposed to teacher standards: depending upon the standard, they can play a role in ensuring that teacher education is valued within universities and that teaching is regarded as a high status occupation. What we are concerned about is standardisation.
The tone of the government’s response to the report, the report itself and the broader talk about teachers’ work and teacher education all appear to work with antiquated notions of teaching as an occupation where expertise depends on a set of skills and knowledge that is easily defined and measured rather than as an intellectual activity where complex decisions are made on the basis of subject knowledge, teaching practice, and educational theory in relation to the students in the teacher’s classroom.
The silence on research literacy
Research is mentioned throughout the report but there is a silence about ‘teacher as researcher’ except where the ability to undertake research is interpreted as ‘data literacy’. Again, this is a very narrow view of research in education.
In our view ‘classroom readiness’ should require teachers to have an understanding of what constitutes ‘educational research’ and an ability to undertake this type of research – what could be called ‘research literacy’. This should underpin the ‘readiness’ of any teacher for any classroom.
In this regard we are very much in support of the work conducted by the British Education Research Association (BERA) and the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in the UK. This work strongly argues that teachers need to be ‘research literate’, that they need to be competent consumers of research who are also able to undertake and utilise their own research.
We recommend the BERA report which sums up the work of the BERA/RSA to all systems that are concerned with ensuring they meet the needs of all the students in their schools, especially marginalised students, that want to keep improving and responding to new social and cultural demands, that see education as more than an economic driver and that value the work of teachers.
Concerns are being ignored
Teacher educators have not been silent about our major concerns and other details of the report. However the body tasked with rolling out the teacher education ‘reforms’, AITSL, is not listening.
On the 14th September this year, AITSL organised a by-invitation Forum to take stock of the outcomes from the report. The Forum was attended by the Minister of Education, Simon Birmingham, the chair of the TEMAG, Greg Craven (VC at the Australian Catholic University) the chair of ACDE and AITSL Board member Tania Aspland (Executive Dean, Faculty of Education and Arts at the Australian Catholic University) AITSL board members, education department officials from the commonwealth, states and territories and a range of ACDE board members.
In a brief to Deans and Heads of Education AITSL claimed that the Forum had: ‘Progressed the national discussions around key elements of the teacher education reforms, including the teaching performance assessment, standard setting and evidence of impact, and achieving national consistency in the accreditation process.” However it failed to engage with some of Australia’s leading teacher education researchers who were in attendance and it was noted that the quality of Australia’s educational research was openly denigrated.
There is thus nothing to suggest that the Forum will lead to a valuing of the place of research in enhancing the quality of the teaching profession or indeed that the government is listening.
Here is some detail of our specific concerns with the report.
The Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers report
How the report came about
According to the Minister, the inquiry, which led to the report, was not politically motivated, but instead was intended to address the decline in the performance of Australian students in international assessments such as PISA and TIMSS. Ministerial advisors also pointed out that this ‘problem’ of declining student performance had not been solved by the 100% increase in Commonwealth funding for schools over a period of time when school enrolments had only risen by 17%.
Inquiries into teacher education in Australia are not a new phenomenon. In the past ten years or so there have been more than forty inquiries into different aspects of teacher education. However little action has been taken to bring about any significant change. What is new has been the unrelenting critiques of (perhaps more appropriately referred to as ‘attacks’ on) teacher education and blaming teacher preparation programs for Australia’s supposed declining ranking on international tests and for putting Australia at risk of not being able to compete on the international economic stage.
Despite the Minister’s claims about the inquiry not being politically motivated, these arguments behind its creation have been driven by a concern, somewhat media driven by, for example, focussing on low entry standards, and hence, supposedly poor quality pre-service programs, and has served to construct the notion of an underperforming teacher education sector as requiring political intervention. This political intervention has been enthusiastically embraced.
The group set up to carry out the inquiry and write the report was chaired by Professor Greg Craven, Vice-Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, and included seven additional members: two Professors of Education, a university Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education), a school principal and a deputy principal, the Chief Executive Officer of an educational consultancy firm, and the Chief Executive Officer of a state-based association of independent schools. It could be argued that this membership over-represented some stakeholder groups and under-represented practising teacher educators. This under representation, the two Professors of Education aside, speaks to the devaluing of academic knowledge about teacher education and creates the impression of ‘doing to’ teacher educators rather than ‘doing with’.
What the report said and our criticisms
The Executive Summary of Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers report refers to the need to improve the quality of teachers in Australian schools by focusing on when teachers ‘are first prepared for the profession’. It is clear that initial teacher education providers are being held accountable for producing ‘classroom ready’ graduates, and there is an implied criticism that this is not already happening in Australian university programs.
The report delivered six key findings:
(1) National standards are weakly applied in accrediting initial teacher education programs and assessing the classroom readiness of graduates.
(2) There is a need to lift public confidence in initial teacher education, especially in terms of entry requirements.
(3) There is evidence of poor practice in a number of programs, which do not provide graduates with adequate content knowledge or evidence-based teaching strategies.
(4) There is insufficient integration of university-based teacher education providers with schools and systems in the professional experience component of initial teacher education.
(5) There is insufficient professional support for beginning teachers.
(6) There are gaps in workforce planning data, and insufficient information on the effectiveness of initial teacher education programs.
This set of findings works to undermine much of the current practice in teacher education, and in some respects targets issues that are often outside the domain of university programs. For example, the responsibility for accreditation and quality assurance of programs (findings 1 and 3) is shared by universities and the national regulatory body, the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL), currently chaired by John Hattie. Also, while entry requirements for initial teacher education are set by universities, these requirements are influenced not so much by trends in workforce supply and demand or by academic prerequisites considered necessary for successful university study, but by financial considerations in maximising enrolments. A measure forced on universities by reduced government funding.
The fourth finding works to highlight that somewhat old tension between theory and practice which suggests that there is too much theory in teacher education and that the real world experience of the classroom requires that more attention be paid to practice. This is not to say that partnerships between schools and universities are unimportant; however, concerns with such partnerships need to go beyond the organisation of the professional experience component of initial teacher education. Such partnerships also need to attend to concerns with the intellectual enterprise of teaching as a research endeavour.
Whilst the latter two of these findings clearly relate to education departments, and other employing agencies, by linking the last of these to the ‘effectiveness of teacher education programs’ the blame for poor workforce planning is attached to the university sector. Ironically, the finding of a lack of ‘public confidence in initial teacher education’ will not be helped by this report.
The recommendations from the report are telling in their grounding in an accountability regime influenced by what educators call GERM, a term coined by renowned Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, where ‘reform’ boils down to more testing, more measuring and more ranking.
On the basis of its findings, the report recommended a number of proposals to bring about structural and cultural change in initial teacher education in Australia:
(a) A strengthened national quality assurance process, requiring universities to provide evidence of the impact of their initial teacher education programs on pre-service teachers and their students’ learning.
(b) Sophisticated and transparent selection for entry to teaching, which addresses both the academic skills (including literacy and numeracy) and personal qualities needed for success in a teaching career.
(c) Integration of theory and practice, by establishing mutually beneficial partnerships between universities and schools that offer professional experience placements.
(d) Robust assurance of classroom readiness, entailing rigorous assessment of graduates’ knowledge and teaching practices against a national assessment framework.
(e) National research to inform innovative program design and delivery, and collection of national workforce data to build capacity for workforce planning.
Terms such as ‘quality assurance’ in relation to programs, ‘sophisticated and transparent selection’ in regards to entry into programs, and ‘robust assurance’ and rigorous assessment’ in relation to the assessment of graduates’ teaching capacities all point to a strengthening of accountability regimes in teacher education.
This was illustrated in the media release by the Commonwealth Education Minister, Christopher Pyne, when announcing the TEMAG report and the government’s response which emphasised that the focus would be on universities being held to account. He stated in this media release: ‘The report sets high expectations for everyone involved in initial teacher education including universities. It also makes a clear case that providers be held accountable for the quality of the teaching graduates they produce.’ He went on to say: ‘I hope my state and territory colleagues will join with us to make sure all beginning teachers have the skills they need and deserve to deliver positive education outcomes for students.’
The media release was highly selective in listing the following as key recommendations:
A test to assess the literacy and numeracy skills of all teaching graduates
A requirement for universities to demonstrate that their graduates are classroom ready before gaining full course accreditation
An overhaul of the in class practical element of teaching degrees
A specialisation for primary school teachers with a focus on STEM and languages
A requirement that universities publish all information about how they select students into teacher education programmes.
The first of these was not actually a recommendation of the report, since the proposed literacy and numeracy test had already been planned as yet another accountability measure of initial teacher education.
It could be argued that most of the other recommendations highlighted in the Minister’s media release served to reassure the public that the government was taking strong action (and ‘Action now’) about the supposed low standards for program entry and exit.
The ‘Classroom Readiness’ message
Core to the report’s findings is the notion of pre-service teachers’ levels of ‘classroom readiness’. However, the notion of classroom readiness is open to debate. In one sense, this concept plays into the increasing vocational orientation of university programs that prepare graduates for specific professions (such as law, accounting, engineering etc.), so that a university education is seen as no more than advanced training for employment. On the other hand, the requirement to be classroom ready at graduation suggests that there is no need for further learning or development throughout a career. Neither of these interpretations sits well with the view that teaching is a profession involving lifelong learning.
Because classroom readiness is so prominent in shaping the key directions proposed by the report, it is worth examining the report’s recommendations to discover how classroom readiness is conceptualised – especially in relation to the role of research in teacher education. This analysis has three parts: (1) what is required to be classroom ready, for example, in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills, dispositions; (2) how is classroom readiness to be determined; and (3) against what standards is classroom readiness to be measured?
Classroom readiness – What?
The recommendations are not explicit in setting out what is required to be classroom ready. Instead, there are references to equipping pre-service teachers with various kinds of skills. For example, Recommendation 15 states that higher education providers should equip pre-service teacher with ‘data collection and analysis skills to assess the learning needs of all students’, while Recommendation 16 asks providers to equip pre-service teachers with ‘the skills to effectively engage with parents about the progress of their children’. Knowledge and understanding of two types are mentioned that could be part of the ‘what’ of classroom readiness. Recommendation 17 requires higher education providers to ‘equip all primary and secondary pre-service teachers with a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of teaching literacy and numeracy’, and Recommendation 18 involves a departure from the practice of most Australian teacher education programs in calling for providers to ‘equip all primary pre-service teachers with at least one subject specialisation, prioritising science, mathematics or a language’.
Thus ‘classroom ready’ teachers appear to be those who can work with data, engage with parents, and can teach literacy and numeracy, preferably with a subject specialisation.
How do these recommendations position teachers and teacher educators in relation to the role of research, especially by comparison with the conclusions of the BERA and RSA (2014) report discussed earlier?
One could argue that the content and structure of programs with the above characteristics should be informed by research-based knowledge and scholarship, but there seems to be little expectation that pre-service teachers (or even teacher educators) should be engaged with and discerning consumers of research. The contribution of research is at the level of program and course design, and not necessarily in the enactment of teaching and learning in these courses, so that research remains invisible to those who should be engaging with it.
Classroom readiness – How?
Given the lack of elaboration in the recommendations on what classroom readiness means, it is not surprising to find little about how classroom readiness of graduates is to be recognised. Recommendation 26 calls for AITSL to ‘develop a national assessment framework…to support higher education providers and schools to consistently assess the classroom readiness of pre-service teachers throughout the duration of their program’. Recommendations 27 and 28 go on to ask for development of Portfolios of Evidence that assist pre-service teachers to collect ‘sophisticated evidence of their teaching ability and their impact on student learning’.
Although it will be the responsibility of AITSL to develop the assessment framework, universities are currently considering ways by which graduates and programs could demonstrate impact, and how to plan for collecting evidence of impact. The role of research in this process might well be limited to informing program structure, although there are signs that the need for evidence of impact could become a catalyst for embedding small-scale research projects or action-research inquiry into initial teacher education programs.
Classroom readiness – Standards?
If classroom readiness is to be assessed in some way, then the evidence collected by pre-service teachers needs to be compared against some specified standard of knowledge, skills, and capabilities to be demonstrated by graduates. Recommendation 29 of the report calls for AITSL to review the Graduate level standards in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers ‘to ensure that knowledge, skills and capabilities required of graduates align with the knowledge, skills and capabilities beginning teachers need for the classroom’. It is therefore relevant to examine the place of research in the Standards framework.
The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers are structured around the three domains of Professional Knowledge, Professional Practice, and Professional Engagement, across four career stages, Graduate, Proficient, Highly Accomplished, and Lead teacher. At the Lead teacher stage there is occasional reference to use of ‘research-based’ learning and teaching programs and to analysing current research to improve students’ educational outcomes. Both of these kinds of statement, found in the Professional Knowledge and Professional Practice domains of the Standards framework, assume that teachers can engage with and be discerning consumers of research in ways alluded to by the BERA-RSA inquiry. Within the Professional Engagement domain, Lead teachers are expected to engage in their own research as a form of professional learning to improve practice, which aligns with the fourth way in which research can make a contribution to teacher education, identified by the BERA-RSA report.
Although the Lead teacher stage seems far removed from the aims and activities of initial teacher education programs, and thus might account for the lack of reference to research in the Action Now: Classroom Ready report, some elements of the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers contribute to a developmental trajectory for graduate teachers that could lead them towards the richer interpretations of ‘research’ outlined in the BERA-RSA report. However, it remains to be seen whether AITSL takes up and strengthens these existing threads within the professional standards framework in order to highlight the need for research literacy amongst Graduate teachers.
The assumed role of research in the report
One of the key proposals of the Action Now: Classroom Ready report related to the need for national leadership in research on teacher education, especially in relation to the effectiveness of teacher preparation. Recommendation 34 called for the reconstitution of the functions of AITSL to provide such a national focus. However, this move – with its implied top-down approach to researching program effectiveness – we would argue, will not on its own support teacher educators or pre-service teachers to conduct their own research that investigates the effects of their educational practices.
There are two other research-related strands within the report recommendations. The first of these is seen in Recommendations 6 and 14, which require higher education providers to ensure that programs have evidence-based pedagogical approaches and deliver evidence-based content. Clearly, the assumed role of research here is to inform program content and structure. The second strand is seen in Recommendation 15, which calls for providers to equip pre-service teachers with data collection and analysis skills to assess the learning needs of all students. While this approach could position teachers as discerning consumers of research, it limits research literacy to data-driven approaches that might not engage teachers with richer forms of research inquiry.
At best, research engagement is seen in terms of teachers collecting and analysing student achievement data in order to adjust and improve teaching strategies. While this could create a data-rich environment that supports school improvement, such an approach would not necessarily immerse teachers in a research-rich environment that draws on multiple forms evidence from multiple sources.
One size does not fit all
One of our great concerns with the report’s focus on classroom readiness is that it fails to take into account context. Contained within this failing is a standardised notion of the ‘ideal teacher’ who can operate within any context.
We are not suggesting that teacher education does not need to reform or that the various programs throughout Australia currently prepare teachers to walk into any classroom, in any location, conditions or situation, in which they might find themselves when they first begin their careers. However, we would argue that a standardised notion of classroom readiness being articulated through the particular recommendations being taken up by government will also not adequately prepare pre-service teachers for the diversity of experiences they are likely to face in Australia.
In the Australian context, as in most other national contexts, a ‘one size fits all’ model of teacher education is clearly not appropriate. If we were to take our own State of Queensland, schools in rural and remote areas are vastly different from those in urban areas, and even within these different locations, schools serve vastly different populations, shaped around socioeconomic status, and the race and ethnic background of students. Teaching, for example, in the remote Indigenous community of Aurukun is vastly different from teaching in any school in suburban Brisbane. Preparing teachers for any possibility is extremely difficult. However, we maintain that a concern in teacher education with research literacy will go some way to supporting newly qualified teachers in diverse locations.
Research literacy supports teacher adaptability
There has to be an awareness in pre-service teacher education programs then that not all schools are alike and that ensuring that pre-service teachers are ‘classroom ready’ in any context requires that they have the abilities to adapt and apply knowledges. For example, there are some clear indications that teachers who will be working in communities with highly marginalised young people do need some special attributes, knowledges and skills, and that teacher education programs can be a place where they develop these.
However, we propose that supporting teacher adaptability, especially in relation to supporting the most highly marginalised students within a school, requires enabling teachers to become competent consumers of research, to use this research to apply it to their own contexts and to delve deeper into that context through sound research skills.
It appears that governments want teachers to be proficient in analysing data that relate to academic outcomes, and principally academic outcomes on standardised tests, both national and international. The perverse effects of such a focus, for example, the thinning down of pedagogies, the narrowing of curriculum options, high suspension rates etc., have been well documented.
These perverse effects are likely to be amplified when teachers’ research skills are focussed on improving their ‘data literacy’ in relation to test scores.
Research literacy needs strong relationships between schools and universities
We believe research literacy cannot be ticked off as a completed project that ends on graduation. There is a need for newly qualified teachers to be able practice this research literacy in on-going ways in schools which value and encourage ‘research rich environments’ (not just data rich!).
The role for teacher education is to develop and refine pre-service teachers’ research literacy, their ability to consume, adapt and undertake research, which will require that through their degrees they are taught how to read literature, how to be discerning in the selection of research evidence, how to ask the right research questions, how to conduct research and how to analyse findings in ways that lead to informed decision making.
For this focus on research to create what the BERA/RSA refer to as a self-improving system there does have to be a relationship between schools and universities. However, again this relationship needs to go beyond that encouraged in the Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers report. Collaborative partnerships between universities and schools based on mutual respect where each is seen as having the potential to inform theory and practice in the other will have benefits for all young people in schools. At the current moment, the Action Now report sees this relationship as primarily a technical one related to the organisation of professional experience within teacher education.
Here again we find ourselves in accord with the BERA/RSA report, which states:
Evidence gathered in the course of this Inquiry underlines the need to go much further, to progress from being data-driven to being research-rich and from being isolationist to being collaborative. This requires a much stronger relationship between schools and colleges, and between practitioners in schools and colleges and those in the wider research community’. (2014, p. 24)
It is also critical that teacher education occurs in a research rich environment. The Action Now report stresses the need for teacher education courses to provide pre-service teachers with ‘adequate content knowledge’ and ‘evidence based teaching strategies’.
We agree these are important. However, the environments in which teacher education occurs need to involve the academics teaching into courses for pre-service teachers in undertaking and disseminating research that is not simply instrumental, but also informed by attempts to tackle the big questions in education related, for example, to its purpose, to its relevance to contemporary youth, to addressing the issues of the day (climate change, marriage equality, global terrorism), and to what counts as ‘powerful knowledge’.
Without encouraging pre-service teachers to question assumptions and supposed education ‘truths’, and providing them with the tools to undertake such questioning, schools are unlikely to become part of a ‘self-improving system’.
Professor Martin Mills is Head of School in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, Australia. Martin’s research interests include the sociology of education, social justice in education, alternative schooling, gender and education, school reform and new pedagogies. Martin’s work in these areas has been significant in contributing to international and national debates on these topics. His recent co-authored books include Re-engaging young people in education: learning from alternative schools and Boys and schooling: Beyond Structural Reform. He is a Fellow of Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia (ASSA), the immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE), holds a Visiting Professorship at Kings College London and is a Life Member of Clare Hall Cambridge University.
Merrilyn Goos is Professor of STEM Education and Director of EPI*STEM, the National Centre for STEM Education at the University of Limerick, Ireland. Previously she was Professor and Head of the School of Education at the University of Queensland. She is an internationally recognized mathematics educator whose research is theoretically innovative and grounded in classroom practice. Her research has investigated students’ mathematical thinking and academic aspirations, the impact of digital technologies on mathematics learning and teaching, the professional preparation and development of mathematics teachers, numeracy across the curriculum, and boundary practices in interdisciplinary research.
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Everyone has an opinion on why young people disengage from school. The topic arouses significant comment from politicians, media commentators, teachers, teacher unions and parents. Viewpoints include blaming the young person, bad parenting, liberal teachers, lack of discipline in schools, too much focus on testing, the breakdown of society and so on. We have heard it all.
However, when I asked a principal of a major Australian high school about students and disengagement, he told me:
‘I really hate the word ‘disengaged’. Every time I get the chance I say to people like yourself and others that the real word is ‘disenfranchised’, because ‘disengaged’ suggests that it’s the student’s fault when the reality of it usually is that it’s just that the education system doesn’t provide anything that meets the needs of the disenfranchised.’
I think this is an important take on the notion of disengagement. It suggests young people who fall into such a category have been denied their right to an education and, significantly, it is the system’s responsibility to address this injustice.
Over the last few years I have been working with a range of schools, often referred to as flexi-schools. These are independent, attached to a mainstream school or linked to a system, such as Edmund Rice’s Youth, which provide options for young people who have rejected or been rejected by a mainstream school. These schools are often flexible around issues such as uniform, homework, attendance and curriculum, taking into account personal circumstances.
They provide for young people who have been living in poverty, have been homeless, experienced some form of trauma in their lives, become pregnant or a parent, or have been discriminated against because of their race/ethnicity, sexuality and/or appearance.
Students of flexi-schools speak about a lack of flexibility on the part of their former schools to address their complex needs, the difficulties in attending school, about being bullied and about being anonymous within a large mainstream school population. Some of the stories these young people told me are heart-breaking.
On the other hand they note how, amongst other things, their new flexi-school provides a crèche, support with legal aid, with finding accommodation and transport, has a focus on developing relationships between teachers and students, and, importantly, ensures young people have an opportunity to air grievances and have an input into key school decisions that affect them.
They also speak about the ways in which they have been engaged in the curriculum through supportive teaching practices. They suggest within their current schools they are not judged by their perceived abilities, backgrounds, appearances or histories.
What we can learn from flexi-schools
Mainstream schooling can learn much from these schools. First, schools need to acknowledge and address the types of economic difficulties some young people face just to get to school and engage with schoolwork. If students do not know where they will be sleeping that night or where their next meal is coming from it is very difficult to focus on schoolwork, to make wearing the correct uniform a high priority or even to undertake the journey to school.
If a school becomes a place where a young person can access a variety of services, such as medical, social and welfare, as well as being a school, it can mean young people in dire economic circumstances are able to attend. Importantly, school can become a place where they know their difficulties will be recognized.
Secondly, whilst many schools suggest that they value diversity, some diversities are more valued than others. I interviewed a number of young women who said they were encouraged to leave school because they were pregnant and young people who claimed that because of their perceived sexualities they experienced on-going harassment (not just from other students) and leaving school was the only way of avoiding such behaviours.
The flexi-schools I visited all recognize the importance of valuing difference through the provision of specific services, for example, crèches and health support, linking with local communities, including Indigenous elders, developing restorative justice practices, and being non-judgmental about appearances. These are all socially just practices that should form the fabric of mainstream schooling.
And thirdly, the silencing of young people’s voice in schools is one of the most common reasons young people give for leaving mainstream school. The students I spoke to often complained about how they were punished, in a variety of ways, for an act they did not commit. They could not cope with such an injustice and left school. Many flexi schools have a system for ensuing students are able to have grievances heard, are able to contribute to major decisions through community meetings and are invited on to school committees (including interview panels for teachers).
The schools also often have no-exclusion policies. Students understand how democracy works by taking part in democratic practices that underpin the organizational structure of the school. This could surely be one way to encourage engagement, not only in schooling but also in society.
Working on how to incorporate democratic practices into mainstream schooling is a key way of addressing disenfranchisement.
Most importantly, research in flexi-schools tells us many young who were deemed unteachable in their previous schools, when given the right conditions will take up the educational opportunities offered them.
It is worth concluding here with the comments of a retired magistrate who was volunteering as a mentor in one of the schools I visited. He spoke about his first day at the school:
‘I walked up the front stairs and … there were a couple of boys that were in raggedy clothes, the dirty, smelly hair. One of them had bits of steel/metal hanging all out of his face. I was thinking to myself, “Why the hell ‑ what am I doing here?” It was only a couple of years I was sentencing kids like that. And then I came in and ‑ it took a session, probably an hour of talking to these kids and then I started to realise, “Hey, wait a minute, I have pre‑judged these kids.” I have been pre‑judging them wrongly, of course. So now, I have totally changed the way I think. As I tell the people when they ask me to talk at various places, “it’s really education, not legislation that will fix the problem with the youth”.’
Such an education can only occur when we look beyond the image young people sometimes construct of themselves, and see their disengagement from schooling as a denial of their right to an education. A right that must be addressed.
Martin is a Professor of Education at The University of Queensland and President of AARE. His most recent book is: Mills, M., & McGregor, G. (2014) Re-engaging young people in education: Learning from alternative schools (Abingdon, Routledge).
In July 2015 AARE is supporting a National Summit on student engagement, learning and behaviour.